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FORT BRAGG, Calif. – Every year, as steady as the tides, lifeless bodies are pulled from the cold, restless water along the rugged coastline north of San Francisco.

Most of the victims are middle-aged men. They wear black wet suits, usually hooded. They are often found in small coves framed by crescents of jagged rocks. An abandoned float tube sometimes bobs about nearby. Almost without exception, the victims are found wearing weighted belts that help them sink.

Sometimes the bodies are discovered by friends nearby. If the fog is not too thick, the victims might be spotted from the towering bluffs above, where lifeguards patrol dozens of miles of desolate coast and armed game wardens spy for poachers. Many of the bodies are plucked from the swells by a search-and-rescue helicopter crew accustomed to making daring rope rescues and recoveries several times a year.

The bodies are those of abalone divers.

“There’s a lot of death in abalone diving,” Nate Buck, a longtime Sonoma County lifeguard, said as he steered a pickup truck south along Highway 1, the Pacific Ocean churning below the cliffs to the right. In 14 years, he has lost count of how many bodies he has helped retrieve. “Lifeguards know that. Drive around here, and every one of these coves is another reminder.”

Abalone is an edible mollusk, a snail-like, single-shell gastropod found in coastal waters around much of the globe. But the red abalone is the biggest and the most prized, found only on the west coast of North America. In California, with a litany of restrictions to protect its fragile population, the hunt for wild red abalone is permitted only north of San Francisco, and only for sport.

A California treasure

Part of the enduring allure is how easy it is to take part. No experience and little equipment are necessary. Air tanks are illegal. Abalone divers simply slip into the murky water and hold their breath, in search of a hidden prize.

The red abalone’s thick, domed single shell grows to more than 12 inches in diameter. Brick red on the outside and pearly silver on the inside, they are trophies, framed for the wall, mounted above a mantel or set along walkways as yard decorations. The meat inside, sometimes several pounds’ worth, is a delicacy, with a taste and texture not unlike calamari.

“It really is an iconic species for California,” said Laura Rogers-Bennett of the University of California at Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and a senior biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It is a species that is part of our fishing heritage. And because of the size of red abalone, the biggest in the world, it’s not unlike the redwood or the sequoia.”

During the seven-month diving season – April through November, with a hiatus in July – thousands arrive each weekend to the wild edges of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, mostly, in serpentine parades from the south and the east. Divers are rooted in tradition and thrive on camaraderie, like those who hunt deer or pheasant elsewhere. They pour from cars and trucks and vans, dress themselves in rubber suits, burden themselves with as much equipment as they can carry and trudge down treacherous rocks to the ocean’s edge.

Those brave enough to dive deep below the water’s surface for abalone or pick through the shoreline rocks during low tides may take no more than three in a day and 18 for the year. Each abalone has to be at least seven inches in diameter, meaning it is probably at least 10 years old. Each shell must be tagged and recorded immediately. It cannot be resold.

But temptations are real, and the black market for poached red abalone is active, because a full-size one can fetch $100 or more.

With roughly 250,000 red abalone legally captured for sport in California annually, and estimates that at least as many are taken illegally each year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, including its undercover Special Operations Unit, spends as much time and resources protecting abalone as any other creature in California.

Abalone, in other words, is a big deal in Northern California.

“It’s like the last warrior-hunter thing to do,” said Sydney Smith-Tallman, whose family owns a dive shop in Fort Bragg that caters mostly to abalone hunters. “There’s danger, thrill, beauty.”

And, though no one tracks the numbers specifically, up to a dozen people die doing it every year.

The hard part

The holy grail for divers is an abalone with a 10-inch shell. No one has caught more than Dwayne Dinucci, a retired high school technical arts teacher who lives on a cul-de-sac in Union City, Calif., near Oakland. The license plate of his truck reads, “POPNAB” – pop an ab, the widely used expression for plucking abalone, or abs, from their suctioned underwater homes on the rocks.

“Ten inches is a landmark, the dream of a diver,” he said. “To this day, 45 years later, when I find a 10-inch abalone, I am thrilled.”

Dinucci had captured 343 abalone before the start of this season, including 20 that were more than 11 inches. The biggest he has caught is 11 29/32 inches, just shy of the world record of 12 5/16 inches, set in 1993 by John Pepper, a former student of Dinucci’s.

Dinucci has four of the top 10 largest abalone caught on record in California, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“The lure is finding the world’s largest abalone,” Dinucci said. “And on my gravestone it’ll say, ‘Never found it, but sure as hell tried.’ ”

The walls and rafters of his two-car garage are covered in hundreds of abalone shells, like hubcaps. They are perfectly aligned on hooks and labeled: size, date, time, location. The locations are intentionally vague, because a good abalone diver does not reveal such secrets.

Dinucci, with a rim of gray hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, usually dives with a group of like-minded, trophy-hunting friends. While some coves can be jammed with dozens of divers and pickers, Dinucci and his crew look for open water, about 12 feet deep, disguising rocky shoals. From an inflatable boat, they drop into the water, one held breath at a time.

Dinucci has a customized boogie board – most use a float tube, which Dinucci finds too cumbersome – fitted with straps so he can hike up and down cliffs with it on his back. The board has hooks to connect to his necessary tools, such as fins, goggles, a waterproof flashlight and an abalone iron, like a small crowbar, used to pry abalone from rocks. Divers are required to carry gauges that measure seven inches, the legal size, but Dinucci’s is 10, because he wants nothing smaller than that.

He has no special ability for holding his breath – a minute at best – but has patience to dive and resurface dozens of times in pursuit of a single abalone. With tight limits on the catch, Dinucci does not want to pluck one that he will regret if he happens upon something larger.

The water, besides being cold and rough, can be as murky as soup. Dinucci prowls the underwater rock formations, feeling with his hands, shining a light into dark holes. Some of his best catches have required him to squirm through narrow passageways. Others have necessitated great patience and reach, inserting the bar into a nook and under the abalone, hoping the slow-moving animal will slide and attach itself firmly enough to let Dinucci carry it to the surface like a Popsicle.

“I’ve gone into holes and all of a sudden a swell will come over and suck you into the hole, even farther than you wanted to come in,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve come close to losing my life. But I’ve had some scares. Which is good.”

Dinucci said he had been thrown into rocks by sudden swells and so-called sneaker waves, known to pull unsuspecting beachgoers off the shore. In many places, the shoreline can be inaccessible because of cliffs.

“Why do a lot of these people die?” he asked. “Mostly inexperience. We get a lot of Southern California divers, but the North Coast is different. It’s rough. And it can get rough” – Dinucci snapped his fingers – “like that. The key is to know where you’re coming out. Getting in is easy. Coming out is the hard part.”

The black market

The man on the phone wanted 45 abalone. The seller agreed to deliver them to him in San Francisco for $2,500, a reasonable black-market bulk price.

A few days later, a car approached an auto repair shop on the west side of San Francisco, far from the tourist sites. It was met by an employee in coveralls and ushered into a service bay. Three coolers were removed and placed into the back of a Toyota Prius. Cash changed hands.

“Our guy’s leaving,” a voice on a walkie-talkie radio said. Unbeknown to the buyer, the seller worked for the Special Operations Unit of the state Fish and Wildlife Department. The shop was surrounded by agents in eight cars, parked on surrounding streets, connected by radios and cellphones.

The 10-member unit is a type of SWAT team, charged with protecting California’s wildlife resources from poachers and the black market. Among its chief concerns are sturgeon eggs, part of the high-dollar caviar market, and black bears, prized for body parts such as paws and gall bladders.

Abalone, though, is the top priority. It was first harvested with regularity in California by Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s, who mostly dried and exported it. The Japanese created many of the state’s hundreds of commercial operations in the early 20th century. With the advent of scuba, divers could eventually collect 2,000 or more abalone a day.

Concern grew as the red abalone population plummeted through the 1970s and 1980s. California took serious action in the 1990s, banning all commercial operations and declaring that sport diving (unassisted by air tanks, with no reselling allowed) could take place only north of the Golden Gate Bridge. (There remains a legal, niche business for small, farm-raised abalone steaks, sold to restaurants and consumers for roughly $125 per pound.)

These days, about 98 percent of the legal abalone diving in California occurs off the remote coasts of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Even so, if biologists’ estimates are correct, at least a quarter-million abalone are illegally poached each year off the coast of California, and the street value could be $25 million.

“It’s not endangered, but it’s scarce,” said Capt. Robert Farrell, head of the special operations unit. “But with lots of money from the black market, it could be endangered quickly.”

Last August, using armed wardens from across the state, Farrell’s team led simultaneous early-morning raids on 14 homes in Sacramento, Oakland and several Bay Area suburbs. It was dubbed “Operation Oakland Abalone Syndicate.” Thirteen men, most of them Vietnamese, were charged with illegal possession of abalone, suspected to be part of a black-market network.

The belief is that California abalone not only finances criminal activity, but makes its way across the ocean. In other countries, such as Australia and South Africa, the authorities have connected abalone poaching directly to drug and arms cartels.

California officials have been unable to draw as many straight lines. But they have made a string of large-scale abalone busts over the past two decades. In 2004, Warden Dennis McKiver boarded a commercial sea urchin boat in Mendocino County and found it jammed with 458 abalone – a load probably worth $40,000 on the black market.

The two men aboard were arrested, barred from fishing for life, fined a combined $60,000 and sent to jail for two years.

“Sea urchins are nickels,” McKiver said. “But next to those nickels are $100 gold pieces. And it’s very tempting for those guys to grab a couple. And then it grows from there.”

It is just another kind of risk taken in the search for abalone.

Divers succumb to stress

Not all abalone-related deaths are by drowning. In June, a 55-year-old man fell to his death immediately after diving while climbing a 100-foot cliff near Mendocino.

Most out-of-water victims, however, are struck by heart attacks. They may drive hours to get to the coast and are eager to return with abalone, a quiet desperation that causes them to overlook ominous clues that the surf, tides and weather conditions silently provide to experienced divers. Water temperatures usually range from 47 to 56 degrees. An ability to see the rubber fins dangling from your toes counts as clarity.

Divers wear constricting wet suits and weight belts, up to 30 pounds, designed to help offset their buoyancy. They sometimes panic when swept into riptides or swamped by sudden swells. Other dangers lurk in the depths, ranging from tangled forests of kelp to great white shark

“All these things are layers upon layers of stress,” said Buck, the Sonoma County lifeguard. “And all that, unfortunately, is too much for people sometimes.”

Twelve years ago, when Buck was 21, he was diving off the rocks of Salt Point State Park with a 52-year-old uncle, an experienced diver from Southern California and an “ocean mentor” to Buck. The man climbed out of the water and had a heart attack on the rocks. Help, as it is along this part of the coast, where traffic is light and cellphone reception is spotty, was slow to come.

“The hardest part was calling my mother and telling her that her brother died,” Buck said. “Hearing her anguish on the other end of the line is a sound I’ll never forget.”